Saint Patrick's Day and the Other American Dream

It is now only a short time until Saint Urho's Day, named after the holy man who drove the grasshoppers out of Finland. Actually, Urho turns out to be a fabrication of Finnish-Americans living in Minnesota during the 1950s, but his day is still celebrated with parades, ethnic costumes, and even green beer. It is set on March 16th, the day before Saint Patrick's Day, but, since local communities celebrate both of these festivities at different times, the official date hardly matters at all.

The festivity obviously turns Patrick into Urho, Ireland into Finland, and snakes into grasshoppers. Maybe Patrick is filing a lawsuit in heaven, but here on earth nobody really cares. Mexican-Americans have also appropriated Saint Patrick's day, which they include in the Catholic calendar. It often is an occasion to honor the San Patricios, battalions of Catholic, largely Irish, Americans that switched sides in the Mexican War, and then fought with legendary courage.

But Saint Patrick's Day is not really about history, religion, or even Ireland; it is about the "other" American dream. Like the dream of building a new and better life, this one is a product of the immigrant experience. It is the nostalgic dream, the longing for a life that was left behind, for all the things that might have been, or might have happened, if one had only stayed. This is particularly intense among the Irish, since their departure from home was often not fully voluntary, their numbers great, and their initial experience in the New World very difficult. But, for the most part, the country of origin could just as well be Finland, Mexico, or anywhere else.

The saint himself is a semi-historical character, but popular images of him have little to do with the fifth-century mystic. The celebration is a pastiche of all the wonderful things that people in America think they might have missed by sailing to the New World: passionate faith, rowdiness, folklore, community, tradition... It has a way of transforming everything, including anti-Irish stereotypes, into fun. But the heavy drinking points to an undertone of sadness that accompanies the merriment, a bit like the many Irish songs in which mournful lyrics are set to rollicking melodies.

According to legend, Saint Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland, but that place -- like Iceland and New Zealand -- never had any. Countless gods, heroes and saints in Western culture have been known for killing serpents or dragons; Apollo, Cadmus, Perseus, Sigurd, Beowulf, Saint George, and Saint Margaret are just a few of the best known. Saint Patrick belongs in this tradition, but what sets him apart is his lack of violence. He never kills or even threatens the serpents, but, rather, negotiates their departure, with a mixture of humor, persuasion, and occasional trickery. Over the years, particularly outside of Ireland, the snakes have gone from being an adversary to a sort of totem, and the holy man is often shown with serpents at his side. This is like the original Eden where, according to legend, the animals talked like human beings.

Ireland has been idealized almost beyond recognition, as a magical land of leprechauns and fairies. Perhaps Patrick represents the original Adam, while Ireland, the pagan goddess Éire, is his Eve. This time around, the first man asked the serpent to leave, so they could live happily forever.


Happy Saint Patrick's Day!